NEW YORK — Thousands of New Yorkers from all walks of life are demanding that something be done to redress what most see as a travesty of justice. Not only was Sean Bell killed on his wedding day, and two of his friends wounded, when plainclothes police, unprovoked, fired 50 bullets at him, but of the five officers involved, only three were indicted — and each was acquitted on all counts.
“The acquittal sends a clear message to the police that they can do that sort of thing in the future and get away with it. That’s unacceptable,” said Rabbi Michael Feinberg of the Greater New York Labor-Religious Coalition.
A cross-section of city residents, Black, white and Latino, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and a host of labor and community organizations, are demanding a federal civil rights suit be brought against the police officers involved, appointment of a special state prosecutor to review and prosecute claims of police brutality and an empowered civilian police review board.
“We are here too many times,” City Council member Melissa Mark Viverito, representing East Harlem, told the World. “This verdict means that there is no accountability.” She said she supports “having the federal authorities come in and investigate this matter.”
On May 7, coordinated civil disobedience actions around Manhattan and Brooklyn brought out thousands of people to support these demands. More than 200 people were arrested at six sites. Those arrested included Bell’s fiancee Nicole Paultre Bell, the other shooting victims, Sharpton, New York NAACP head Hazel Dukes, leaders of United for Peace and Justice, and Communist Party USA leaders.
“Peace and justice are inextricably linked,” said Leslie Kielson of UFPJ. “We know that there can’t be peace without justice; there can’t be justice without peace. This issue is reflective of the climate of racial profiling — the issues are so linked. The profiling of African American youth is of the same cloth as racial profiling of Arab and Muslim men since 9/11.”
“I am Sean Bell,” said Letitia James, a City Council member from Brooklyn. “I have Sean Bells all throughout my district, Black men who are stopped and frisked too often.” She said she came to protest to represent not only Black men, but Blacks and whites and everyone who questioned what happened at the Sean Bell trial.
James and other civil rights activists maintain that there is bias against people of color among police officers. Backing up their case is data recently released by the NYPD. According to the department’s own statistics, analyzed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, New York City police officers stopped 469,000 people in 2007, 88 percent of whom were completely innocent. More than 80 percent of those stopped were Black or Latino. In 2006 and 2007, there were nearly 1 million “stop-and-frisk” encounters, in which 90 percent of those stopped were people of color.
Sharpton vowed further civil disobedience that would “shut this city down” if justice is not served.
The day after the protest, New York State Gov. David Patterson met with Sharpton and the Bell family. At the meeting, Sharpton pressed the demand for a special state prosecutor to look into all police brutality cases. Patterson congratulated the protestors, including those who went to jail, for their disciplined behavior. He promised to look into reforming laws governing how undercover police operate, including drug and alcohol testing for all officers involved in shootings.
As if to underscore the problem of police brutality here, the city’s highest Black uniformed police officer, Chief Douglas Zeigler, who leads the NYPD’s Community Affairs Bureau, was recently confronted in his SUV by two white police officers. The officers, who did not recognize Zeigler, tried to pull his door open, even after he identified himself.
One of the officers has been disciplined for dealing with Zeigler in a “discourteous” manner. Sharpton, speaking at his office in Harlem, commented, “The problem isn’t that they didn’t recognize him; it’s that they don’t recognize our rights.”
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who heads the House Judiciary Committee, attended a town-hall-style meeting on police brutality here last week. His committee is preparing for hearings on the Sean Bell case.